Tag Archives: Marathon

“Barefoot Runner: The Life of Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila” by Paul Rambali

1956 was Year Zero for African running on the world stage, a 60th anniversary that few people appear to have noticed in the build-up to the Rio Olympics. For sure, South African teams had competed in global sporting events prior to that date, but the teams were entirely white. Given the dominance of East Africa in distance running nowadays, it is amazing to think that there was once a time when there were no African champions.

Ethiopia, under its dictatorial emperor Haile Selassie, repeatedly applied to join the Olympics in the 1940s and 1950s, and was just as repeatedly dismissed with laughter, until the International Olympic Committee finally relented and allowed Ethiopia to compete in Melbourne in 1956, where its athletes failed to make much of an impression. The prevailing view was that Africans lacked the discipline and temperament to be athletes, and would therefore humiliate themselves in global competition. Barefoot Runner tells the story of when everyone stopped laughing and paid attention: the day when a member of the emperor’s bodyguard seemed to come from nowhere to win the 1960 Olympic marathon in Rome, barefoot.

It was Hollywood stuff. Abebe Bikila had only joined the team as a last-minute substitute when a first-team member injured himself playing football. The marathon itself was scheduled late in the day, so that it finished at night, the final miles lit atmospherically with burning torches as Bikila and Rhadi of Morocco duelled it out for gold. In a sweet moment of national vengeance, Bikila won his victory by passing under the arch of Constantine, the very spot from where Mussolini had set out 25 years previously to conquer Ethiopia, known then as Abyssinia. He even set a new world record of 2:15:16 to boot. Four years later, and just a few weeks after having his appendix removed, Bikila won gold again in Tokyo, becoming the first person to score double marathon gold medals.

Bikila’s final years ended in tragedy. Involved in a car crash, he became paralysed from the waist down, and spent months recovering at Stoke Mandeville hospital in the UK. He toured Ethiopia for a while, giving inspirational talks to schoolchildren, but eventually died in 1973 from complications relating to his injuries. He was just 40 years old.

The words “story” and “Hollywood” that I used earlier are important here. Barefoot Runner is a fictionalised imagining of Bikila’s life. Although Rambali has clearly done a lot of research, he has filled in the gaps with speculation and incidents that may not have happened. There is a horrifying scene during Bikila’s first journey to Addis Ababa where a thief in a marketplace is identified by a boy in a trance and then hacked apart by a mob. Bikila himself is nearly fingered as the culprit before the trance-boy changes his mind. It’s a shocking and vividly described moment, and perhaps such things are known to have happened in Ethiopia at the time, but was Bikila actually there, and was he really nearly the victim of mob justice? Similarly, there is a roll-call of 20th century figures that have cameo roles in the narrative: Nelson Mandela prior to his arrest; Lee Evans, who was one of several US medallists who gave the Black Power salute during the 1968 Olympics; and Wilma Rudolph, the fastest woman in the world in the 1960s and worthy of a biopic in her own right, to name a few. Rambali imagines how these conversations might have unfolded. There’s no proof of course.

None of which actually gets in the way of enjoyment of the book. It’s beautifully written, and Rambali gets into the minds and motivations of his three main characters: the humble Bikila; his guilt-ridden Finnish coach Onni Niskanen; and the powerful and paranoid Selassie. Indeed much of the books is actually a fascinating portrait of an absolute monarch facing the pressures of modernity. And what an eccentric king he was. Selassie split his day into Hours in which certain types of business took place: the Hour of Informants; the Hour of Purse; the Hour of Judgements etc. The most pivotal moment in the story comes when two of the emperor’s’ western-educated “next generation” betray him and launch a coup, supported by the imperial bodyguard. It’s here where I feel Rambali crosses a line into dangerous embellishment, depicting Bikila as an (unwilling) witness to the massacre of aristocrats by his fellow bodyguards. Once the coup is defeated, the perpetrators are hanged and Bikila is only saved by a royal pardon because of his sporting success. It is a fantastically dramatic account…but there’s not a shred of evidence for it either way.

Ultimately the reader has to make up their own mind about where fact and fiction part ways. I have read some alternative accounts that suggest Bikila was not the mild-mannered man depicted in the book, but rather like later tragic marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru, he succumbed to drink and womanising as he grew famous and wealthy, and was possibly drunk at the wheel at the time of his crash. We will probably never have the full story.

Don’t let any of this stop you from reading the book. It’s a cracking story, blisteringly told, and unlike any other work of ‘sporting fiction’ you’ll ever read.

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“The Competitive Runner’s Handbook”by Bob Glover and Shelly-lynn Florence Glover

Regular readers of these reviews will be aware that my writing has a pattern; start with a silly, occasionally humiliating, story from my past, then make an incredibly tenuous link to the book in question. For those of you for whom my schtick is getting a wee bit tiresome, you will be delighted to hear that I am stumped here. Not because The Competitive Runner’s Handbook is a bad book. Far from it. The problem is that it’s like reviewing a Haynes car manual. Vital as a reference source when the wheels fall off, but not exactly my ideal companion for a long flight.

The Glovers are coaches and heavily involved with the New York Road Runners. Their book is a huge compendium of running knowledge and wisdom gleaned from years of training runners of all abilities for races. Virtually everything you could wish for is covered here: training plans for specific distances, heart rate training, running form, dealing with injuries, to name but a few. The authors are not sports scientists, so some of the advice might be considered dated, but it’s not as if people are running significantly faster times these days than when the first edition of this book was published in 1983.

I have dipped into this book over the years repeatedly when I have needed suggestions for solo interval sessions, to get me out of the monotony of doing 6 x 3mins or 10 reps of 400m. The relevant chapters have a number of suggestions for speedwork, along with tables indicating how hard runners of different abilities should run and recover from each rep.

Ah yes, the tables. This is probably the standout feature of the book. It is stacked with data and charts. I feel delightfully smug every time I look at the “Categories of Competitive Runners” tables at the front of the book, which breaks runners down by their race times. When I first bought the book, I was a Basic Competitor for my gender and age group, running 5ks in around 24mins and half marathons in 1:52. Over the years I have progressively moved through the ranks to the point where I am somewhere between Advanced Competitor and Local Champion. Something tells me I will never make it to Semi Elite status, but it’s a gratifying ego boost nonetheless.

Perhaps the most useful part of the book is the comprehensive pacing chart in the appendix. This lists out what each minute-per-mile speed – down to the second – will achieve for specific distances. Sub-3 marathon? 6:51 pace. Sub-40 10k? 6:26 pace. You get the idea. It shows everything from 5 minute mile-ing (a 2:11:06 marathon) to 11 minute mile-ing (4:48:25 marathon). Although this information can be found on the web, I have yet to find a more convenient source for working out my desired speed than quickly flicking through these pages.

Overall, if you are looking for guidance when putting together a new training plan, want to think about your running in a more data-driven way, or need advice on whether you should run when ill, then I heartily recommend this handbook. There is something here for everyone, although you probably won’t ever read more than a third of it. There’s even an index entry for “pre-race arousal”, although I would not dream of making a puerile joke out of that…

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“Duel in the Sun: Alberto Salazar, Dick Beardsley and America’s Greatest Marathon” by John Brant

As I write this, I am a shambles of a man. My legs have been replaced with twin pain sticks. Negotiating stairs requires abseiling equipment. Going to the toilet requires the assistance of a full SWAT team. Yes, I have just completed a marathon…and it went very, very badly. Inevitably this means I am sat on my sofa feeling glum and muttering “never again”, while simultaneously looking up the dates and course maps for “revenge marathons” next year.

Reading Duel in the Sun, an account of the 1982 Boston Marathon, made me realise that, despite my collapse from sub-3 pace to 11 minute mile-ing, I hadn’t actually pushed my physical barriers at all. 1982 became the stuff of legend not only because Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley finished within 2 seconds of each other, but because the toll of the race effectively destroyed both men’s athletic careers. John Brant’s gripping book cleverly interweaves the narrative of that day with the surprising backstory and terrible consequences.

To runners of my generation, Salazar is better known as Mo Farah’s coach, a man with allegedly questionable attitudes towards performance-enhancing medication. Reading this book helped me better appreciate his mindset. In his prime, Salazar was a teenage prodigy and fearsome competitor, winning the New York Marathon 3 times between 1980-2. Tapering was for wimps, and he would do intensive speedwork and flat-out 10ks days before a marathon. In both running and life, he was a man of extremes, and once pushed himself so hard at the Falmouth Road Race that he collapsed and was read his last rites by a Catholic priest.

Following Boston in 1982, he spent years unable to train properly, constantly suffering from mysterious breathing difficulties. It would later transpire that he had lost 40% of his lung function by over-exerting that day. Salazar’s career was cut short because pushing the body to absolute extremes was not sustainable. In the athletes he coaches, it seems he seeks people who can push themselves super-hard, but whom he can help with a more scientific attitude towards recovery and training than he himself followed. The question is, I suppose, where science ends and cheating begins.

For those who think Salazar arrogant and aloof, his family’s story is illuminating. His religious father was a college friend and early supporter of Fidel Castro, but was then forced to flee Cuba when he became increasingly critical of Castro’s communism and godless government. The son inherited his dad’s strong faith and sense of machismo. Salazar’s innate conservatism would occasionally lead him to be shocked by the actions of his fellow athletes…although even I was gobsmacked by the author’s revelation that the race director of the first London Marathon in 1981 had hired “escorts” for the elites!

At that very same London Marathon, Dick Beardsley was responsible for one of the most iconic images in British running. He and Inge Simonsen crossed the finish line in joint first place, holding hands as they did so. Many found the gesture a heart-warming image of solidarity and comradeship. Salazar, tellingly, was disgusted by the lack of zeal to win. Yet Beardsley was no hippy. He ran because he needed to earn, and he entered and won an extraordinary number of races, averaging a marathon every 8-10 weeks. Despite this pedigree, in the pre-race build-up, Salazar didn’t even acknowledge Beardsley as a threat.

That would change during the race itself. For mile after mile, the two men stuck together. One of the best sections in the book highlights racing tactics that you simply cannot see on TV coverage. The surges. The deliberate attempts to disrupt rhythm. The mind games. But neither man was able to break the other.

Beardsley would ultimately push himself too hard that day, overriding his brain’s ‘central governor’. Within weeks he suffered a career-ending injury, continuing a terrible chain of events that would result in years as a pain-killer addict and prescription-fraud felon. I have rarely read a better description of addiction as an illness that the sufferer simply cannot control.

Both men would eventually find redemption. Salazar found a cure of sorts in – of all things – Prozac, which re-set his cortical-enzyme levels, and allowed him to compete in – and win – his final race, the Comrades ultramarathon. Interestingly, thyroid medication – the subject of many of the allegations against him as a coach – was something he tried but which did not help his condition. Taking Prozac exposed him to accusations of using a performance-enhancing drug, although he was public about it, and it was not on the banned list. Perhaps the most significant thing about his Prozac years is that it forced him to admit that he also suffered from depression. For the machismo-ridden “man of valour”, in an era when athletes did not discuss mental health issues, this was a turning point in making him more humble.

Beardsley found a path back to normal life by simply getting caught, which he had craved for years. The legal and rehab processes that followed allowed him to slowly, painfully rebuild his life. He set up an annual half-marathon in Detroit Lakes, and in 2003 he even had a special guest runner: Salazar. The two men who had barely spoken in 1982 had become friends over the years, each recognising something of themselves in the other’s suffering.

This is an enthralling story of the consequences of pushing the human body and mind to its very limits, and what it means to truly race. For all of us runners, it is a cautionary tale that extreme exercise can be seriously damaging to your health, and maybe – just maybe – there are other things in life worth keeping in balance.

Nonsense. I have of course chosen to ignore that message entirely, and have signed up for the Liverpool Marathon in the course of writing this review. What’s the loss of a little lung function in the pursuit of a sub-3?

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“Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon” by Ed Caesar

Elite marathon running suffers from what I call the “Kiprotich Problem”. The men’s Olympic marathon in 2012 featured high drama and one of the most shocking turnarounds and upsets in the sport. Having been whittled down to a leading pack of 3 runners, one of them fell off the pace, apparently in some pain. The question now was whether gold would go to the world champion, or to the man who had won the London Marathon earlier in the year. Instead, out of nowhere, the man in pain suddenly came surging back, overtaking the other two and claiming a surprise gold. The fact he was an unheralded Ugandan, from a country that hadn’t topped a podium since 1972, made it all the more inspirational. When he returned home to a hero’s welcome in Uganda, he was rewarded with $80,000, a presidential state breakfast, and promptly promoted to Assistant Superintendent at his day job in the Ugandan prison service.

If you follow elite marathon running, all of this was genuinely exciting. Your non-running friends and family, on the other hand, would have seen a race where a runner called (Stephen) Kiprotich beat another runner called (Wilson Kipsang) Kiprotich. Admittedly silver went to a man called Abel Kirui, which is a cracking name for anyone’s firstborn, but the fact remains that elite marathoners come across to the uninitiated as…well…samey.

Ed Caesar’s excellent Two Hours has an admirable mission. The East African runners that we see winning big city marathons are not boring, identikit athletes, blessed by good genes. Instead, in a phrase I love, he describes them as “rare, intriguing men”, and he sets out to prove it.

Caesar has spent considerable time in Kenya, getting to know top athletes such as Wilson Kipsang, Geoffrey Kamworor, and Geoffrey Mutai. In TV interviews, these men come across as polite, easy-going and somewhat shy, and generally being unbothered if beaten in a race. What is very apparent from this book is that this is all a facade. These are intensely driven and competitive men, who kick themselves for months if they lose. It is Mutai’s story around which Caesar chooses to structure his narrative, providing a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of an elite marathoner. Boring? Hardly. This is a man who was nearly chopped up by a machete-wielding mob in 2008. These are not ordinary, mundane lives.

When Mutai won Boston in 2011, he ran the fastest time ever recorded over 26.2 miles. What he didn’t realise until afterwards was that this could not be an official world record, because Boston, with its net downhill and point-to-point course, is not eligible for records. On top of that, people talked about his performance being wind-assisted. In Caesar’s account, despite clinching $500,000 in that race, Mutai was privately tortured and infuriated by this downgrading of his achievement, and from that point on he had something additional to prove to his critics. That something was the quest to set a new world record, and perhaps be the first man to run a sub-2.

Is a sub-2 physically possible? Interestingly, a peer-reviewed paper was published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in 1991 by scientist Mike Joyner, who calculated that if a man had the best possible values for lactate threshold, running economy and VO2 Max, they could run 1 hour 57 minutes and 58 seconds. 1:57:58. This highly specific time has been the subject of controversy ever since, with “dreamers” believing it gives evidence we will smash the barrier one day, perhaps within the next decade, while naysayers such as Ross Tucker (of the Science of Sport blog) think that it simply will not happen because we are already at the edge of racing performance; shaving seconds off the record is conceivable, but knocking off 3 minutes is fantasy.

Perhaps there are other means of making the fantasy a reality? When you read Adharanand Finn’s enjoyable Running with the Kenyans, based on Finn’s experience of living in Iten, you see Kenyan training centres as places of harmony, fellowship and neighbourliness. Ed Caesar certainly shares that view, but he also presents an interesting balance to this image; the East African running community is also a snakepit of gossip, rumour and slander. All the top marathoners, including Mutai, are suspected (on minimal evidence) by their slower peers of doping. “You think you can run 2:03, only with blood?” said one 2:10 marathoner to the author with incredulity, claiming that anything faster than 2:06 was suspicious. Caesar, for his part, believes that Mutai is clean, but he makes a good point that is obvious when you read it: we should pity the poor bastard who does break two hours, because he will be hounded by accusations of cheating for the rest of his life.

For me, one of the highlight sections of the book is the breathless account of the 2013 London Marathon, which could also be named The One Where It All Went Pear-Shaped. This race featured the greatest line-up ever (including me), and everything about it suggested “fast time”. Then the men went off at a phenomenally quick pace, led by Emmanuel Mutai (no relation, again exemplifying the Kiprotich Problem), who threw in surge after suicidal surge to break up the pack. The elite group consequently detonated, with the world’s top runners crossing the line in relatively embarrassing times, and the eventual winner coming from around 12 places down to overtake a spent Emmanuel Mutai in the last mile, breaking the tape in a “pedestrian” 2:06:04. Mutai apparently came in for a lot of anger behind closed doors from the other runners for “killing” them and denying a 2:03 or 2:04 finish, but he was simply treating it as a race, not a time trial. And in a race, a winner aims to bury his competitors.

This is why, both Caesar and Geoffrey Mutai conclude, we are unlikely to see a sub-2 in the current climate. Not because the runners can’t do it – Mutai is convinced it can be done – but because the events are not designed to facilitate it. Most of the main city marathons are big-money races, where winning will always take precedence over setting records. What is needed is a special event where a sub-2 is the only goal, with a huge number of pacemakers acting as windbreakers, and a team of stars driving each other on, all of whom would get big paydays whoever actually broke the barrier. To generate the money needed to make this happen, Caesar envisages a big show modelled on championship boxing matches, where much of the excitement is generated in the build-up, accompanied by attention-grabbing HBO-style documentaries about the training and preparations for the race.

But first, marathoning would have to overcome the Kiprotich Problem, and get the wider public interested in these characters, their stories, and what is at stake. A copy of the superb Two Hours, pressed into the right hands, would be a good start.

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“The Little Wonder: The Untold Story of Alfred Shrubb – World Champion Runner” by Rob Hadgraft

In 2014 I was ranked 24th in the UK at 15 miles. Twenty-fourth! This sounds especially impressive…until you realise that there was only one 15-mile event held in 2014 (the Banbury 15), and I came 24th in it. Still, I’ll take glory where I can get it.

I bring this up because, reading Rob Hadgraft’s biography of early 20th century runner Alfred Shrubb, I was struck by what our our PB-obsessed running culture has lost. By promoting ‘standard’ distances of 5k, 10k, half-marathon and marathon, we have consigned to history a far more interesting and diverse array of race lengths and terrains. Back in Shrubb’s day, runners would run an assortment of distances, including 2-mile, 7-mile, 11-mile and one-hour time trials.

During Shrubb’s glory years of 1902-4, he set world records for every distance from two to ten miles, and also held the record for furthest distance run in one hour. Most of these were not beaten until the Flying Finns of the 1920s came along, and some were not bettered until after the Second World War. What is doubly staggering is that it took 50 years – 50! – for another Brit to set a world record, when Gordon Pirie ran 28:19 for six miles in 1953.

In 1952, The Times ran an article entitled “A Veteran Runner Returns”, describing the visit of the now elderly Shrubb to his old club, South London Harriers, for a celebratory dinner. In the words of their correspondent:

“Shrubb’s distinctive style of running, and the astonishing bursts of speed with which he seldom, if ever, failed to shake off the opposition, as well as his numerous record-breaking times, made him one of the outstanding sporting personalities of his day.”

Yet this athlete – the indisputable greatest runner of his generation – is virtually forgotten today. In his own time, he was world-famous in the English-speaking world, participating in running tours in Australia, the US and Canada, as well as dominating the British scene. Both Arthur Conan Doyle and P G Wodehouse referenced him in popular novels, with “Shrubb” used as shorthand for “speed”.

Rob Hadgraft aims to restore Alfred Shrubb back to his rightful place in sporting folklore. Shrubb’s talent was spotted by chance as an 18-year old, when he ran to the scene of a fire with the captain of the local athletics club. Very quickly he established himself as a local, then national, champion of the highest order, breaking records along the way. His approach to racing was unorthodox, and heavily criticised by the elder statesmen of the sport. Instead of even pacing, or holding something in reserve for the end, Shrubb was a passionate front-runner, and would throw seemingly suicidal bursts of speed into random laps. It clearly worked for him, and devastated his opponents.

Another element of Shrubb’s era we have lost is the concept of handicap races. Many of Shrubb’s races involved him giving a headstart to weaker opponents, which would have injected much more spectator excitement into an event that might otherwise have been a forgone conclusion. My own club does a monthly time trial along these lines, and the Hawaii Half-Marathon has a ‘locals vs Africans’ handicap contest, but in general most runners have little exposure to such races. What a great shame – it would be the perfect way to get spectators interested in the sport again, rather than losing interest because “their” runners don’t stand a chance against the Kenyans.

As seems to be the case with every elite runner I read about from this period, Shrubb eventually fell foul of the amateur code. Shrubb was a working-class man of small means, so it was inevitable that he would need to accept expenses in order to travel to races. However, by 1906 the Amateur Athletics Association perceived that these had crossed a line, and Shrubb was branded a professional. All of a sudden, as with “Ghost Runner” John Tarrant half a century later, most regular races were closed to Shrubb. No cross-country championships. No Crystal Palace meets. No Olympics. UK Athletics’ recent trend of shooting itself in the foot with team selection has long roots.

The book struggles at times with its mission of comprehensiveness. In the first half of the book I could have done without the reports and times of every single event that Shrubb raced, however much I admire Hadgraft’s diligence at finding these in primary sources. The pace of the book flags as a result. It’s the years where Shrubb competed as a professional where the narrative picks up. Shrubb “broke” America by fostering a rivalry with a Native American runner called Tom Longboat, who smashed the course record for the Boston Marathon in 1907. Over the course of at least 10 events the two men would hammer each other at different distances, and by all accounts, the races were genuinely exciting affairs. In their inaugural marathon contest, one man hit the wall at 22 miles and surrendered a colossal lead. The Times described it as “the most stirring and sensational distance race in a long time, and the 12,000 that filled every seat and all available standing room will look back in years to come at one of the great historic contests”.

12,000 spectators! What a time it must have been to be an elite athlete, either amateur or professional. Crowds of thousands attended long-distance track events, with indoor marathons proving especially popular. It is amazing to think that, once upon a time, people were prepared to spend 3+ hours watching men do endless laps of a 200m track. I can’t even get my family to watch the London Marathon on TV.

The flip side of this is that the conditions sound atrocious. Just about everyone in the audience smoked, at a time when the word “ventilation” was just something that would score reasonably in Scrabble. Shrubb himself remarked in interviews that tobacco fumes left him dazed and half-suffocated.

For the athletics fan, it’s an interesting slice of our sporting history. I have to admit though, that I found the character of Shrubb as depicted in the book curiously soul-less. In Hadgraft’s account you get very little sense of the man behind the legend, probably because the author was almost solely reliant on newspaper sources, rather than personal correspondence. Nevertheless, we catch glimpses that there was more to him than running. Despite his humble background, he was evidently very sharp, and what he lacked in education he compensated for with a strong entrepreneurial streak, using his success to set up a tobacconists in his hometown of Horsham, and later buy a stake in a mill in Canada. There is a poignant contrast here with his rival Longboat, who would blow all his riches on drink, fast cars and women (the rest he squandered) and end up as a street cleaner.

In his later years, Shrubb remained involved in athletics, acting as coach for both Harvard and subsequently Oxford University athletics teams. He retired to a quiet life in Canada, but remained in remarkable fitness until his death in 1964. Since 2003, his adopted Canadian hometown of Bowmanville has staged an annual Alfie Shrubb 8k, a pleasingly non-standard distance, where I can only hope that the person who comes 24th also has the joy of being ranked as the 24th best 8k runner in the country.

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